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Source of Lightby Reynolds Price
THE PRINCIPLE OF PERTURBATIONS
Hutchins Mayfield had stripped and faced the water, intending to enter before his father and stage the drowned-man act to greet him. But turning in the half-dark cubicle, he was stopped by sight of another man, naked also, close there beside him. He took two quick steps to leave, then knew — a dressing mirror he'd failed to notice hung on the pine wall. He went back and looked, not having seen himself for a while — not alone and startled, fresh for study. (In fact, except for negligent shaves, it had been two weeks — his twenty-fifth birthday. He'd been in Richmond that night with Ann; his grandmother tracked him down by phone to wish him luck. He'd borne her rambling a little impatiently; so she closed by saying, "Have you checked your looks now you're over the hill? — twenty-five is the downside in our family, Hutch, whatever doctors say. Twenty-five, we're grown." He'd checked in Ann's bureau mirror and confirmed it.) Now he studied his groin, full in the warm day, and thought how little it had caused but pleasure — a grown man's first means of work hung on him, an aging toy. But he smiled and reached a hand toward the cool glass, stroked the dim image. It bobbed in gratitude — pony, pet turtle — and Hutch laughed once, then heard his father's voice at the pool.
"What things will this cure?" Rob Mayfield said.
"Sir?" — the Negro attendant.
Now an exchange was promised in the earliest consoling sound of Hutch's life — a white voice, a black voice twined and teasing. He stood to wait it out.
"Which one of all my many troubles will this spring cure?"
"They tell us not to make big claims no more. Used to say kidneys, liver, eczema, the worst kind of blues, warts, falling hair. Whatever they tell me, it cured my feet. I was born flat-footed."
Rob said "Bathing fixed them?"
"No, never. I drink it. But it sure God jacked these feet off the ground. Born glued to the floor; now my kids play under em — run in and out, hide all in the shade. This your first time here?"
Rob said, "Yes. Thirty years ago I lived in Goshen, but I never got over the mountain somehow."
"Shame on you then," the Negro said. "Goshen ain't nothing but sand and cold river. Warm Springs would have helped you, just twenty minutes west."
"It seemed farther then. The road was bad."
"Beautiful now. Go on; step in — never too late."
Rob laughed but said "Oh it is." Then he moved.
Hutch came to the door of the cubicle to look — Rob Mayfield's back. His father stripped was something he really hadn't seen, not for years.
Fifty-one years old but still white and firm in waist and hams, Rob stooped to grip the rafts of the stairs and descended slowly into eight feet of clear water bubbling from the earth, precisely the heat of a well human body. Then he swam four strokes to the center of the pool; embraced the ridgepole and looked back, smiling, to his only child. "I should have found this thirty years ago. Might have changed some things."
Hutch also gripped the rails but paused at the top. "What things?"
Rob continued smiling and paddled his hair back, still barely gray, but said no more.
Hutch looked for the Negro. He was back out of sight with his radio; so Hutch could say, "You might not have had me." He grinned but was earnest.
"I didn't say that."
"I've been the main trouble for most of those years."
"Never said that either."
Hutch nodded — it was true — but he stood on, dry in the thick warm air of late afternoon, and looked at what seemed the only block in his path: this middle-sized man, drenched and curling. The main thing he'd loved, that might yet stop him.
Rob clapped his hands once. "Were you ever baptized?"
"Not in my recollection."
"Then descend," Rob said and raised his right arm. The smile never broke, but he said "Father. Son --"
Hutch slowly descended. They laughed together as Hutch's head sank. But he didn't rise. He went straight into the drowning tableau — emptied his lungs so he fell to the smooth rocks that paved the spring and sprawled there, lit by green light that pierced the water.
It worked. Rob saw him as dead, that quickly — dead limbs gently flapped by currents, the long hair snaky. Yet he didn't move; he called the Negro. "Sam, step here."
The man was named Franklin, but he came at a trot.
Rob pointed down.
Franklin nodded. "Dead again." He stared a long moment. "Looks real, don't it? He do that a lot, every time he come — like to scared his young friend to death last week."
Hutch jerked to life and thrust toward the surface. He broke out, streaming; faced his father, and said "-- Holy Ghost."
Rob said "Welcome."
They swam, sank, floated for the hour they'd purchased. No other bather joined them, and Franklin stayed off in his own little room. Within three minutes of the drowning, they had calmed. The water's constant match of their own body-heat soon made it a companion — gentle, promising of perfect fidelity: the craving of both men, in different ways. To Hutch it seemed a large faceless woman — spread and open, inescapable — into which he inserted his whole free body; four times in the hour he stiffened and fell. To Rob it finally seemed a place — the original lake in which he had formed, which he'd left insanely but had now found again, and in which he'd dissolve. They scarcely spoke, only fragments of pleasure. They felt no need, for the first time ever in one another's presence. When the hour was up and Franklin came, they were deep in separate dreams of safety.
Franklin said "You shriveling yet?"
Rob looked to Hutch.
Hutch looked at his own right hand. "A little."
"Then time to get out. Hour's all you can stand." Franklin held white towels like gifts more tempting than the spring itself.
Hutch swam the strokes that put him by his father. That whole charged body was covered with beads of air like an armor. He reached out and wiped his hand down Rob's chest, clearing a space.
Rob took the wrist and, not releasing it, swam back an arm's length to focus the face. "I'll try not ever to forget this," he said. "You please try the same."
"I can promise," Hutch said.
"No, just try."
Hutch nodded and they swam together toward the stairs.
In the safe dreamy hour, Rob had found no way to tell his son what he'd had confirmed two days ago — that Rob Mayfield, early as it was, would be dead by winter; that the body which had served him unfailingly till now had conceived and was feeding in a lobe of its right lung a life that would need nothing less than all. At the stairs he said "You first. You're slower." He wanted that instant of sight to decide.
Hutch gave it. He climbed out strongly but paused on the top step, not looking back; then he cupped his face in both large hands and shuddered hard — only once but enough.
Rob saw that to tell him now before the end would be to stop the trip he'd planned, that he'd leaned his life on mysteriously. Or, if he should still leave in face of the news, to show him as the final demon of dreams-faithless after decades of smooth deceit. Rob took the rails also. Against the lovely pull of the spring — its promise of care — he hauled himself and his fresh partner up.
They ate a good supper at the Warm Springs Inn (mountain trout, new lettuce) and set out at eight in clear cool darkness to drive the pickup on to Hutch's near Edom — some sixty miles north through mountains and valleys, and they both were tired. Rob had started up from North Carolina at noon to meet Hutch at five. Hutch had thumbed down from Edom; the bath was his idea. So Hutch drove now and — through the first mountain, cross the Cowpasture River — they said very little. Past the river Hutch realized his whole idea would force Gosh
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